Underdogs – Chapter Three

‘So you admit an attack would be stupid.’

‘Doing nothing’s even stupider,’ said Ewan.

‘Yeah, but at least it’d be safer.’

Ewan’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the side of his mug. Charlie was a close enough friend, but debating him was exhausting.

‘Charlie, if you want to stay at home because it’s safe, what’s the point in fighting this war at all?’

‘If you want me to raid this health centre blind, I want a better reason than that.’

Ewan huffed, unsure whether Charlie was objecting for sensible reasons or just to be argumentative. He was capable of both, but had spent most of his Oakenfold years doing the latter. Even when he had seriously good points, staff members had been less than willing to listen to the ideas of a short, argumentative teenager.

Ewan glanced to the far side of the kitchen table, where Jack leant against the wall with his eyes to the ceiling. Jack had left the discussion minutes ago to twirl his fingers through his dishevelled, greasy hair, perhaps bored with the bickering. Or daydreaming again, even at seventeen.

‘Let me make things nice and clear for you, Charlie,’ Ewan began. ‘Tonight we saw a human – an actual, real life human – outside the walls of our nearest Citadel. We also got to see Keith Tylor’s phone, which gave away the exact location of the place he was taking her to. Do I need to tell you how big an opportunity this is?’

‘Alright, let me make things nice and clear for you,’ started Charlie, his voice wavering.

Ewan bit his lip. He would need to tread carefully. Charlie’s anger and Ewan’s demand avoidance would be an explosive cocktail.

‘Ewan, you’re asking us to go to this place without knowing anything about it. We have no idea how many clones are there, no idea what they’re guarding, no idea whether it’s even important, and no idea who Lieutenant Lambourne even is. Screw that.’

Ewan let out a sigh, and drummed his fingers on the dirty kitchen table. He was almost prepared to admit Charlie was right, but couldn’t bring himself to believe his own views were wrong.

‘Pardon me for pointing out the obvious,’ offered Jack, sweeping his dishevelled hair from his eyes, ‘but can’t we just wait for Shannon to start talking? Then we won’t have to trek all the way to Hertford to find anything out.’

‘Who says she’ll even talk?’ asked Ewan.

‘She’s been here for like two hours. Give her a moment. Besides, she’s in good hands. McCormick’s got warmth and kindness pouring from every part of his body.’

‘What, every part?’ asked Charlie with a grin.

Kate barged into the kitchen, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Wordless, she approached the table and shoved a crumpled piece of paper into Ewan’s hands.

Ewan didn’t know how to react to the words on the page. Two facts were immediately obvious: the paper was an up-to-date list of the Underdogs, and it had been printed from a Citadel computer. But he struggled to combine those two facts. The universes of New London and Spitfire’s Rise did not slot together in his mind.

Oh bloody hell… it mentions my PDA.

‘Ewan?’ asked Jack.

Ewan turned the paper round for his friends to see, with a finger covering his diagnosis. His friends’ shock was predictable. McCormick’s Underdogs were no longer anonymous.

‘Where’d you get this?’ he asked.

‘Shannon’s pocket,’ Kate said with a hesitant gulp.

Before Ewan could even process the information, Charlie was heading for the door.

‘Charlie, wait a second,’ said Kate.

‘Wait for what? Where the hell do you think that list came from?’

‘Er, Shannon’s pocket?’ said Jack.

‘Originally, you idiot. That’s got Nicholas Grant written all over it!’

‘It’s got our names written all over it.’

‘Jack, do you think this is a joke or something?’

‘I think you’re overreacting,’ said Jack. He started to flick his thumb across his fingers again, like he always did when he was thinking. He called it ‘stimming’: his way of stimulating his brain when he needed to think straight. ‘She’s blatantly not one of Grant’s agents. I mean, there’s at least two things you’re not thinking about.’

Ewan checked the door. Jack had Charlie’s full attention.

It was a famous ability of Jack’s: his brain had the capacity to think of ideas that never occurred to anyone else, at the cost of missing the really obvious stuff. He may have been the ultimate Asperger’s oddball with the worst hair on Planet Earth, but his ideas were always worth listening to.

‘First off,’ Jack started, ‘she killed Keith Tylor. Remember that?’

Ewan cracked a smile. He was still forgetting that fact once every few minutes, and it felt good every time he was reminded.

‘She did it to gain our trust,’ spat Charlie.

‘It’d be a good strategy,’ said Jack, ‘but why sacrifice such a big guy for it? Why not just make her kill a bunch of clones, or look like she saved our lives somehow? I’m pretty sure the great Keith Tylor wouldn’t agree to a plan that’d cost him his life.’

Ewan nodded. Charlie didn’t answer, which was probably a win for Jack.

‘And secondly,’ Jack continued, stopping his finger-flicking to point at the paper, ‘she brought the list here with her. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bad guy stupid enough to do that. If she were an enemy, she would’ve got rid of that list the moment she saw you.’

‘She might have been a little distracted at the time,’ said Charlie.

‘Do you really think spies walk around with study notes in their pockets? If I’d been given a list like that, I’d have memorised it and destroyed it straight away.’

‘Not everyone has your epic memory, Jack.’

‘Whatever. There’s no good reason why an enemy would walk in here with our names in her pocket. We need an explanation for it, sure, but–’

Kate let out a gasp. By the time Ewan had looked up, Charlie had stormed out of the kitchen.

‘Well that’s just great,’ muttered Ewan. He ran for the door, possibly spilling his drink on the way but not being bothered enough to check. He bolted through the house, hoping against the odds that he would find Shannon before Charlie did. He tried to predict where she had reached on McCormick’s grand tour of Spitfire’s Rise, but stopped when he realised something unnerving.

They kept their armoury downstairs, down in the wine cellar next to the house’s hidden underground exit. As well as that exit there were two other tunnels; one leading to their farm, which occupied the bottom floor of next door’s house, and the other leading to their makeshift generator room. If McCormick had taken Shannon to either of them, she would be trapped once Charlie reached the armoury.

Ewan ran down the cellar stairs, and glanced around. The bookshelves across the concrete floor were packed with combat weapons, set out like a firearms supermarket. Bladed weapons, handguns, assault rifles, helmets, handy non-combat tools such as binoculars, and a healthy supply of long-range radios. The remaining wine, of course, was kept away from the more dangerous items.

Next to the Memorial Wall, Charlie stood with a pistol already in his hands.

‘Jack’s full of crap,’ Charlie said.

He knows that’s not true. His impulses are getting the better of him.

As evidenced by the gun in his hand, I guess.

There was no faulting Charlie’s enthusiasm. There never had been. But his enthusiasm did not always point in the right directions.

‘Charlie, what exactly are you planning to do?’

‘Get some answers.’

‘By scaring a girl who’s already too terrified to speak?’

Charlie opened his mouth, but he was cut off by an opening door. Alex emerged from the tunnel to the generator room, and froze in place at the sight of Charlie’s weapon.

‘Er… did I catch you at a bad time?’ he asked, his deep voice a few notes higher than usual.

‘Alex,’ said Ewan, ‘find McCormick. Tell him to–’

But it was too late. McCormick wandered through the tunnel door after Alex, with a quivering Shannon in tow.

Ewan had expected screams, but instead he found silence. Charlie raised his weapon. Shannon cowered. McCormick placed himself in front of her.

Alex shuffled to one side, irritated at being on generator duty at just the wrong moment, and vanished back down the tunnel.

‘Charlie,’ said McCormick, ‘talk to me.’

‘She’s a bloody spy, we have proof!’

Ewan checked Shannon’s face in an attempt to read her reactions, but doubted he’d do a good job of it. In front of her, McCormick looked concerned but not panicked.

‘And you think that gun will help matters?’ McCormick asked.

‘Shut up, you hypocrite – you lead an army! Ewan, show him what’s in your hand.’

Ewan looked down. He had forgotten the list was still in his grip. With a sigh, he unfolded the paper and handed it to McCormick. The man’s expression grew even more concerned, but there was still no worry in his face.

Shannon, however, had turned pure white. Like Kate during a panic attack.

‘It’s up to date,’ said Ewan. ‘It’s even got Daniel as being dead. What was that, three weeks ago?’

We didn’t even know for sure he was dead, he thought. He just went missing on a raid. Nice way of having the news broken.

‘You try telling me that’s not from New London,’ shouted Charlie.

McCormick gave the armoury a five-second silence, and turned around.

‘Are you OK, Shannon?’ he asked.

Ewan had to stop his jaw from falling open. Charlie did not stop his own.

Shannon gave no response, her eyes fixed on the gun held by an impulsive fifteen-year-old.

‘Charlie,’ said McCormick, ‘nothing good will come from you holding that. Stop and think.’

‘I am thinking! Far more than you!’

‘If you were thinking,’ said McCormick with a smile, ‘you’d have remembered the guns here are empty. The bullets are locked away.’

The look on Charlie’s face would have been priceless, if so much weren’t at stake. He shook the pistol up and down, as if trying to gauge its weight, and then lobbed it across the armoury where it clattered against the shotguns.

‘Take a moment, mate,’ Ewan said. ‘He’s right. There’s a way of sorting this, but it has to be cleverer than that.’

Charlie stared at his best friend, and offered no words. A scornful stare, but nothing unexpected. The tunnel door opened and Alex re-entered the cellar, apparently feeling safe to do so now the pistol was gone.

‘Ewan,’ he asked, as if his vanishing act never took place, ‘what happened to the good old days? Back when you guys were the Temper Twins? You and him, peas in a pod. Setting each other off, exploding together. Now you just calm him down all the time. Did you grow up and stop having fun or something?’

‘Not the time, Alex.’

‘You do realise Charlie just cancelled out a whole night of McCormick’s people-building magic?’ Alex asked, ignorant of Shannon’s position right next to him.

‘Alex, shut up,’ yelled Charlie, ‘or I’ll ram your teeth so far down your throat you’ll need a toothbrush for your–’

Take a walk, Charlie,’ barked Ewan.

Charlie’s face shot back towards him with widening eyes.

‘Seriously,’ Ewan finished. ‘Now’s the time to walk away.’

‘Don’t you ever speak to me like a child… ’

‘I’m giving you advice. Walk away and find a quiet room. This isn’t how we do things.’

I don’t care!

‘That’s funny,’ said Alex. ‘You seem to be not caring very loudly.

Charlie vanished before Ewan could breathe another word. Stomping as loudly as he could across the cellar’s concrete floor, he marched to the stairs and slammed an open palm against the wall with as much noise as he could manage.

‘What’s his problem?’ asked Alex. ‘Oh yeah. Forgot for a second.’

‘Give him time,’ said McCormick. ‘We’ll get the real him back.’

‘You know, word for word that’s exactly what you say every time he does this.’

‘And I’m always right.’

Ewan gave half a smile, and chose to ignore McCormick’s clumsy wording. Charlie’s difficulties were very much a part of the ‘real’ him, even if they weren’t a part of the calmer him. But Ewan appreciated what the old man was trying to mean.

Most days I’d swap with Charlie, though. People spent years believing ADHD just meant bad behaviour. I wouldn’t mind being seen as badly-behaved, rather than violent or just plain evil.

‘Shannon,’ McCormick repeated, ‘are you OK?’

Shannon took a string of long breaths, tears filling her eyes. She gave no response. Ewan walked up to her with his softest footsteps, and did his best to sound sympathetic.

‘Charlie’s not a bad guy,’ he started, ‘he’s just worried. I don’t blame him, to be fair. We want to keep you safe, Shannon, but you have to let us know what that list is about.’

Ewan looked to McCormick, as if for approval, but the man’s eyes were fixed on Shannon. One of his hands lay on her shoulder, although it didn’t seem to calm her down.

Ewan turned around and headed for the stairs out of the cellar. His Temper Twin needed calming down, and sooner was better than later.

‘I can destroy the clones,’ Shannon said.

The sentence was followed by a lingering silence, as Ewan turned around to find McCormick and even Alex speechless.

‘Every last one,’ she whispered, her eyes fixed to the ground. ‘Just hide me.’

There was no intonation in her voice. Ewan couldn’t even make out an accent.

‘How?’ he asked.

‘Do we have a deal?’

‘Shannon… we need to know about that list. About whether we’re safe.’

Shannon kept her face lowered. Her faint words didn’t even bother to echo off the cellar walls.

‘Every last clone. Dead. And you keep me a secret, no questions asked. That’s the deal.’


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